Upcoming documentary to highlight little known ‘Rosenwald Schools’

Posted on August 31st, 2011 by

By Cindy Sher, JUF News

The iconic Chicago Jewish business leader and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald should be a household name for all his good deeds—and filmmaker Aviva Kempner is working toward making that happen.

Earlier this summer, Kempner traveled to Chicago to get the word out and raise funds for her upcoming film documentary with the working title The Rosenwald Schools, which is being created under the auspices of The Ciesla Foundation.

Rosenwald is famous for leading Sears, Roebuck, and Company and for his philanthropic accomplishments in the Chicago Jewish community, but less is known about his altruistic work in the South. The film, which Kempner is currently shooting, will chronicle how Rosenwald joined forces with African-American educator Booker T. Washington to build African-American schools in the Deep South during the early part of the 20th century.

“The partnership between Rosenwald and Washington is perhaps the most compelling one of our time,” said Kempner, a Washington D.C.-based Jewish writer, director, and producer. “…The film tells the great story of a Jewish and African-American partnership way before the civil rights era. It is a great Jewish legacy and very much a legacy for Chicago, where Rosenwald was first based.”

Kempner, who created the 1999 film The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a documentary about the great Jewish baseball slugger, selects film projects that highlight lesser known Jewish heroes, such as Greenberg, TV star Gertrude Berg, and members of the Jewish Nazi resistance. “I make films about under-known Jewish heroes…As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I take it as my life’s task to make documentaries that counter negative stereotypes of Jews and show their heroic acts,” said Kempner, who was born in Berlin after the war before immigrating with her family to the United States.

Now she highlights Rosenwald’s heroism in her new film. Rosenwald was born in 1862 to German Jewish immigrants in Springfield, Ill., down the block from Abraham Lincoln’s home. The son of a clothier, Rosenwald had business acumen that would eventually lead him to a lucrative investment in a fledgling mail order business called Sears and Roebuck, now Sears. He later would climb his way up to become president of the company.

Chicagoan Peter M. Ascoli, Rosenwald’s grandson, has teamed up with Kempner to promote the new film, due out, if funding comes through, late next year. While Ascoli never knew his grandfather, he has spent the last 15 years researching his famous relative. In 2006, Ascoli published the biography, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of African-American Education in the American South (Indiana University Press). “My mother told me one story about how Rosenwald used to walk his younger children to school,” said Asocili, who teaches non-profit management at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. “They used to walk a block and run a block, and the chauffer, who was driving Rosenwald’s car, would follow alongside so that once Rosenwald dropped off his kids, they could drive out to the Sears plant.”

Influenced by the social gospel of Chicago Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Rosenwald used his riches to fix the ills in the world, both in the Jewish community and beyond. He served two terms as President of the Federation of Jewish Charities, the forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. His legacy in the Chicago Jewish community is still recognized through the Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award, the Federation’s highest honor. This month, longtime JUF/JF President Steven B. Nasatir will accept the award at the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting. [Turn to p. 16 for details on the upcoming Annual Meeting.]

The book Up From Slavery, a biography of an ex-slave turned revered educator Washington, inspired Rosenwald to empower African-American people to climb their own way out of poverty. While Rosenwald could provide the preliminary financial push, he believed in social responsibility and self-reliance on the part of people he helped.

Rosenwald formed a partnership with Washington to build schools in the Deep South. He established challenge grants, seeded for the creation of more than 5,500 schools—dubbed the “Rosenwald Schools”—for poor, rural African-American children in the southern states at a time when few received public education. From 1915-1932, 660,000 rural, Southern African-American students benefited from the initiative. “Rosenwald Schools,” famous during their heyday, produced ancestors of African-American success stories like Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Anita Hill. The project is less famous today because—after Rosenwald died in 1932—the schools stopped bearing his name and funding dried up.

“He was a visionary in his views on race in America,” Ascoli said. “He came to believe that black and white people were equal in this country, and should be treated as equals, a view held by very few white men or women in the early 20th century. His is a story that really needed to be told.”

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner is looking for stories, archival footage, and photographs from the Rosenwald years. If you can assist her, e-mail her at akempner@aol.com.She will also be in town for the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting on Sept. 20, so contact her ahead of time because she will be conducting interviews in person while in town.

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